Friday, August 26, 2011

The New York Press on West-Park and Woodshed

Thursday, August 25,2011

Tale of Madness at West-Park Presbyterian

Woodshed Collective uses historic church as backdrop for re-imagining of Polanski’s ‘The Tenant’

By Mark Peikert
Photo by Emily Fishbaine/ Subletting Theater
The final installment of director Roman Polanski’s so-called “Apartment Trilogy,” 1976’s The Tenant, isn’t as well known as Polanski’s earlier films Repulsion orRosemary’s Baby. Starring Polanski himself as Trelkowski, a newcomer to a Paris apartment house who gradually goes insane under the scrutiny of his mysterious neighbors, The Tenant is enigmatic, haunting and sometime frustratingly oblique. So what better way to experience it than live, as part of Woodshed Collective’s ongoing love affair with installation theater?
An elaborate and intricate project, The Tenant, which opened Aug. 24 and is performed free of charge, boasts a script written by no fewer than six up-and-coming playwrights and original scoring from Duncan Sheik and David Van Tieghem, and is spread out over five floors of the historic West-Park Presbyterian Church parish house.
Woodshed Collective takes over West-Park Presbyterian Church for their production of The Tenant.
“I grew up in New York, and I have a sort of essential curiosity about what’s going on in the apartment next to you,” said Teddy Bergman, who, along with Gabriel Hainer Evansohn and Stephen Squibb, serves as Woodshed Collective’s artistic director. “And the source material represents a sort of nightmarish sense of that reality.”
The total immersion theatrical experience has been growing in popularity (and critical acclaim) since Woodshed Collective first started its installations with 2008’s 12 Ophelias, staged in McCarren Park Pool. In 2010, The Transport Group scored a massive success with their revival of The Boys in the Band, performed in an actual apartment; last year saw productions in buildings as varied as the Goethe-Institut (Hotel Savoy) and Hudson Hotel (Green Eyes). And, of course, there was this past spring’s site-specific breakthrough, Punchdrunk’s critical and popular hit Sleep No More, a disorienting immersion into the world of Hamlet staged in a Meatpacking District warehouse.
Far from being envious or feeling territorial, Bergman and company are rooting for more experiences like that.
“It’s exciting that there’s more installation and site-specific work going on here,” Bergman said. He praised companies that “try to invest new spaces with theatrical power, and then try to reclaim theatrical power for a new audience and put them in touch with what’s remarkable about the form.”
Surely Woodshed Collective’s The Tenant is one of the more appropriate pieces with which to experience the full force of theatrical power. Just as The Boys in the Band put audience members in the same room as the sozzled characters, so, too, do Bergman and his playwrights include the audience in the increasingly fragmented world of Trelkowski and his neighbors.
“The story kind of illustrates the sort of breakdown of the modular society of this building, and all of the flaws inherent in it,” Bergman said, harshly highlighting “people’s essential mistrust of one another and people’s lesser instincts hiding just below the surface. That story, to me, is a very exciting one to tell in an installation context. When we’re asking people to walk around and look and explore, it’s a fun mirror to hold up to the organism of the audience.”
Mounting a show written by six different playwrights, all with different voices, was not the headache it might at first seem. “The starting point for most of the writers was in the source material,” Bergman said—material that included the original novella by Roland Topor that Polanski adapted for his film. None of the playwrights was given an assignment; instead, they were asked to list the characters they’d prefer to write.
“And there was some crossover, but it kind of worked out wonderfully,” Bergman said with a laugh. “Of course, we were prepared for everyone to fight over the landlord character.”
The worry that half a dozen different voices might clash instead of mesh is rendered moot by what those half-dozen voices are working on. “Some of that got ironed out over the course of drafts and the course of the process,” Bergman said. “There is a sort of sense about genre that they’re all tapping into but, I think, in certain ways, where stylistic divergences appear makes sense in the piece. Each character is invested with an author’s point of view. It’s form following content. It’s set in an apartment building with many lives being led, and we want to give a distinct voice to all those lives. I just think it’s so thrilling to encounter multiple voices in that context, which to me, in certain ways, is a more accurate representation of those lives.”
Telling a story as layered and complex as that of The Tenant needed just the right space, and Woodshed Collective hit the jackpot with West-Park Presbyterian Church. “We wanted something with multiple floors and the ability to see from one room to another with a kind of circuitous traffic pattern, so you feel kind of in the maze of the building,” Bergman said. “This building really has it.”
West-Park is no stranger to the theater, either. Long a home to Upper West Side theater companies like Riverside Shakespeare Company and Frog and Peach, West-Park’s pastor, Robert Brashear, felt no qualms about hosting such a sprawling theatrical endeavor. “When they approached us, we were really in a pretty empty state,” Brashear said. “We were closed for approximately three years, and came back here and were reclaiming what was some seriously damaged space. After landmarking last year, we had to do this ourselves. And with a parish house with significant water damage, the work that Woodshed is doing helps us further down the path. We’ll have the benefit of significant parts of our restoration accomplished.”
The arts have provided a major stepping stone for the restoration of West-Park’s buildings. In addition to the repair work that Woodshed Collective has necessitated, a June concert for victims of the Japanese tsunami helped restore some of the church’s bathrooms, and a Three Graces production prompted the church to bring the space up to code for Actors’ Equity.
That rough-around-the-edges aesthetic of West-Park is a perfect match for both Woodshed’s immersive aesthetic and the tone of The Tenant. As Bergman said, “Because both metaphorical and actual urban decay are topics in the piece, an historical building like this, and one that definitely shows its wear and tear on the surface, was essential.” Also essential, no doubt, will be return trips to West-Park for the chance to follow another strand in the web that Bergman and company have so carefully woven.

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